We were on a tour related to the Bar Kochba revolt. On Route 38, southwest of Jerusalem, Shulie Mishkin asked the bus driver to stop by the side of the road. She wanted us to see three Roman milestones. Route 38 follows the route of an important two thousand year old commercial Roman road. She stressed the milestones were not in their original locations; they had been put in this spot so tourists would be able to find them easily.
However, we didn’t see milestones. All we saw were two small skinny saplings and three holes in the ground. The milestones had been dug up since the last rainstorm.
Milestones are very heavy, being about three to five feet high and two feet across. Why would anyone go to the trouble of digging up three of them?
Someone with sharper eyes than mine pointed to a park across the road. ”Doesn’t it look like there are stones over there?” she asked.
Shulie agreed; it would be worth checking what was across the road. . She had the bus driver take us up the road and then talked some workers into opening a gate to let the bus enter..
Which is how our group from Pardes ended up visiting the new archeological park near Beit Shemesh—a park so new, it has not opened yet.
Parc du France Adoulam stretches for several kilometers, and the new archeological park is a small part of it. The three Roman milestones were just moved here two weeks ago, the man in charge explained. Now they stand proudly on the edge of the parking lot.
The park was still in the construction stage. Unconnected pipes lay on the ground, signs leaned against the buildings, construction trucks were parked in random places. Yet much of it is completed. Many artifacts are arranged in a display area, with explanatory signs in the standard three languages. Several stacks of white plastic chairs stood in the open pavilion on the other side of the parking lot. And a dedicatory grove had been planted, with stone monoliths among the young trees.
The display area behind the milestones attracted my attention. Some stone artifacts found in the area were installed to show how they had been used two thousand years ago. A long wooden beam ran through a heavy stone wheel which sat in a round stone base. In early winter, olives would
have been poured onto the base stone to be crushed for oil. As Mort Rosenblum explains in his book Olives, most of the oil is in the seeds of the olives, not in the fruits. That is why such heavy stones are used to crush them. The mashed olives would then be spread on woven mats and taken to the beit bad, the press which would squeeze all the oil out of the mash, just as it is at small presses today. I recognized the olive press at once. The long heavy beam on its fulcrum could have been attached that way only in order to exert heavy pressure on the crushed olives. As part of the reconstruction, the park management had even stacked some mats in the press.
As I walked around to snap a picture of it, I saw a different style olive press. This second one used a large wooden screw to press the oil out of the crushed olives.
A grape press is different. Grapes are so tender when ripe, the juice runs out if you simply put a few clusters of them in a pile. The four foot square stone gat or wine press, just beyond the olive presses, clearly reflects the difference between grapes and olives. Its sides are a few inches high, and in two places carved channels would have allowed the grape juice to run out of the pressing area into the deep stone pits on one end.
Shulie explained the role of milestones in the Roman Empire. But first she apologized to us for not knowing where the stones were. They had been moved from next to the road to the park only two weeks ago. Indeed, one of the milestones had several small pieces of wood holding it in place on its base as the cement finished drying.
Roads held the Roman Empire together, Shulie explained. The Romans built good roads wherever they went, roads being necessary for communication as well as for travel and commerce. With good roads, they could quickly move troops wherever they needed them. A good network of roads also requires signs to make sure travelers know exactly where they are and how far they have yet to travel.
The stones are inscribed with the distance a specific spot in to the nearest city, as measured in Roman mil. A mil was 1,000 standard paces, 0.92 of today’s miles. This part of the inscription was in Greek, the lingua franca of the time. To make sure everyone who passed by understands who was responsible for the road, the name of the Caesar was inscribed in Latin. In addition to his name, the Caesar might be described in terms of one of his major accomplishments. The inscription on the milestone we saw at Parc Adoulam described the Caesar as “conqueror of the Arabs.”
After admiring the milestones we wandered around the park to see what else was there. Several picnic tables stood in a grove of trees closer to the entrance. It would be a lovely place to bring the family for an outing, to eat lunch in a shady place and learn about the production of wine and olive oil.
Several of us walked in the other direction, toward a plaza, with what looked like a fountain in the middle. As we approached, we saw it is not a fountain but a large colorful abstract painting on a round platform, elevated about two feet. In three spots, blue paint extended from the multi-colored central design to the edge. The shape of the central design looked vaguely familiar. And then it hit me. “It’s a map of France!” I said.
But I couldn’t figure out its orientation.
“That’s north,” said a young man in our group, orienting us. pointing at one side of the map. And pointing to an island on the other side, he added, “and that’s Corsica.”
Of course. Parc du France, map of France.
The stone monoliths in the grove ringed the map, giving it a semblance to Stonehenge. There was a small hill in the middle, which blocked sight lines across the grove. I wondered if the hill had been built there to disrupt the likeness to Stonehenge and its accompanying aura of idol worship.
The monoliths held the dedication plaques. This is a Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL, Jewish National Fund) park, and the KKL, like the Roman emperors, wants everyone to know who constructed it. The plaques were in only two languages: Hebrew and French. Although the monoliths were were all the same size, the size of the dedications varied, no doubt reflecting the size of donations.
I walked around, reading the inscriptions on the plaques. Although I did not recognize any of the names, I knew the feeling, the need to publicly recognize beloved parents and grandparents no longer among the living.
The plaque next to the path closest to the entry to the grove brought me up short. The language was stark. It was dedicated to “the Memory of THOSE WHO WERE MURDERED IN ACTS OF TERROR ON ROSH CHODESH KISLEV 5776 in PARIS.”
I stood there a moment reflecting. Other plaques had been dedicated to the memory of loved ones who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Shoah. But this plaque, memorializing people killed so recently had a sharper impact. It brought to mind the line in the Passover Hagadah, “In every generation, One rises up to destroy us.” The reminder seemed antithetical to the purpose of a lovely park, but in Israel, surrounded by countries that seek to destroy us, it is a fact we cannot forget.